Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Harvest of Yesterday by Emily Sarah Holt

On this day, October 31 1517, a German monk protesting the sale of indulgences nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of a church in Wittenberg, a university town, sparking an astonishing hundred-year revitalisation of Christendom known today as the Reformation. October 31 has been celebrated ever since as Reformation Day by all those who remember the remarkable sacrifices and service rendered not just by Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Martin Bucer, Ulrich Zwingli, Philip Melancthon, and the others but also by thousands of common men and women across Europe who humbled their hearts before the clear word of God and, in many cases, lost their lives.

Today is Reformation Day, and tomorrow is the older festival of All Saints’, so today I want to commemorate the Reformation with a very interesting book by a very interesting author: The Harvest of Yesterday by Emily Sarah Holt.

Emily S, or E S Holt as she is sometimes known, might best be described as a female GA Henty. Like Henty, she wrote primarily detailed historical novels set around the Reformation and other important periods. The Harvest of Yesterday is the first of her books I’ve been able to read, as they are basically out of print today. I found this one at a book fair in New Zealand among the antique books: a battered but beautiful old hardback, the presentation plate at the front dates it to 1895, two years after it was published.

The Harvest of Yesterday is a fictionalised biography of Anne Brandon, Baroness Grey de Powys, eldest daughter of that Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk who is remembered by all Tudor history buffs as the man who so romantically married Henry VIII’s youngest sister Mary after her first husband, the aged King of France, had died. Anne was the Duke’s daughter by a previous wife, a woman whom he’d married at common law and then repudiated in order to marry a wealthy widow. A few years later, he got an annulment for the widow and remarried Anne’s mother, who died the following year. He then sent Anne to Flanders to be raised by the Archduchess Margaret of Savoy, one of the most powerful women of that period, with whom he was carrying on a flirtation. When the Duke married Queen Mary of France, she begged him to bring Anne back to live with them and later, when she was about twenty, Anne was married to the by all accounts rather horrible Lord Grey de Powys. They separated a few years later and were eventually divorced. Anne went to live in Bethnal Green, near London, and eked out a dull existence being continually insulted and passed-over by all who knew her.

Emily Holt draws a sympathetic picture of a prickly, much-suffering woman, resigned to a life of obscurity and dullness right in the middle of some of the most exciting years of the Reformation. As well as being the gentle story of a much-wronged woman whose own inability to hope is her worst enemy, this book is a fascinating look at the period, filled with painstaking detail and thoughtful analysis of the people and the times. As in a GA Henty novel, some passages read like a history book; others like a novel, although the novel is gentle domestic fiction instead of thrilling adventure.

One of the things that I particularly enjoyed about this book was the theology discussed within its pages. At one point, a character is having a conversation with Bishop Latimer, who counsels as follows—
“Madam, the least sin that can be done is high treason. The value thereof is not reckoned by the import of the thing done, but by the majesty of Him against whom it is done. All sin deserveth the pains of Hell.” 
I was surprised to see this articulated so clearly, with so little hedging, in a book written in the 1800s when reformed theology of this calibre was not at all in vogue. Shades of John Piper, and also of the evangelistic approach of Ray Comfort, in a book written in 1893? Incredible—yet also profoundly encouraging.

The book was also full of fascinating historical detail about the times of the Reformation. We seem to be living in a bit of a Tudor craze right now—everyone’s lapping up salacious biographies of scandalous Tudor lives like anything, but missing out on the point of the whole thing, which was one solid knot of political unrest, religious rediscovery, and almost a panic revolving around covenant succession. If it was an age when a man like Henry VIII could get drunk on the beauty of a woman like Anne Boleyn, it was also an age in which men like Latimer, Ridley, and Knox could get drunk on the beauty of God—it was an age of gigantic sins and gigantic obedience, often coming from the very same people.

Then, you just have to look at the family lives of these people to realise that something was going on deeper than mere lust. Covenant and succession are the two main themes. Henry VIII’s constant covenant-breaking in the desperate search for a successor was no aberration. Charles Brandon had at least five wives. Divorce, annulments, separations, and widowings were common. Succession—and there can be no succession without covenant—drove further dissolution. Emily Holt makes the cogent point that at this period, just a generation out from the Wars of the Roses, England had no guarantee that without an heir she would not fall back into a ghastly series of wars. An heir was the only way to ensure peace, everyone thought, and that may explain why Henry was able to divorce the popular Katherine without losing the allegiance of his people.

But, just as in the royal family, families all over England were obsessing over succession. Like Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, Anne Brandon experienced the uncertainty of never knowing whether she was currently considered legitimate. Meanwhile parents like Anne’s half-sister Frances and her husband Henry Grey saw their children as a path to power. Sons and daughters were married off to wealthy aristocrats who otherwise were obviously terrible matches.

Out of all this a surprising trend emerged. After her husband Lord Powys died, Anne Brandon remarried—a humble squire, Randal Haworth. After Charles Brandon, her father, died, his young widow Katherine Willoughby married her gentleman-usher, Mr Richard Bertie. After Henry Grey lost his head, Frances Grey married her stableman, Adrian Stokes. And of course, Mary, Queen of France, had married Charles Brandon, who Margaret of Savoy had been told was beneath her. Throughout this period, women who had married for advantage went on to marry to please themselves.

As regards the central character, Anne Powys, herself, the book is endlessly informative and interesting. I certainly found myself wanting to know more about her. Emily Holt portrays her as prickly, unloveable, but with a great thirst for love and the story follows her attempts to find peace and hope in a hostile world.

I was interested to read the Wikipedia article on Anne Powys, but surprised to note its disapproving tone. The Wikipedia article states that the reason Anne was left out of her father’s will was that she had caused a scandal by living openly with Randal Haworth (which the book does not mention), and that she conspired with a judge of Chancery to defraud her brother-in-law Henry Grey. It’s possible that new historical research has brought new records to light as regards Anne’s relationship with Haworth but as far as the ‘conspiracy to defraud’ goes, Emily Holt addresses this in her Historical Appendix: at first, she says, she believed Anne to be a party to the fraud:
Thus at first I understood it and […] for some time I thought very badly of her. A few entries on the Rolls led me afterwards to question this view of the case; and the result of careful research and investigation was to prove it wholly untenable. […] Differing views may be taken of Beaumont’s fraud; but after weighing the evidence, I see little reason to doubt that Anne was either altogether ignorant of the fraudulent part of the transaction; or that she was deceived into supposing that something was being done to recover for her lands to which she believed she had a right. The punishment which fell upon Beaumont was not shared by her. 
 She further shows that Anne, already quite poor, was disadvantaged by the transaction and concludes that the reason Anne was left out of her father’s will was that she was being treated as illegitimate, “since it was only on that head that she could be so treated.”

Whatever the truth of these matters, the Historical Appendix also contains Anne’s will, a very moving testament to this woman’s true character and eventual (early-Protestant) faith:
“I, Anne Lady Powes, one of the daughters and coheirs of the high and mighty Prince Charles, late Duke of Suffolk, by the license, assent, and consent of my loving husband, Randall Havworth Esq., do make this my last will and testament, being in perfect mind and memory, in this manner and form following. First, I do bequeath my soul unto Almighty God, beseeching him of his holy glory to forgive me all my trespasses in this world by me done and committed against his Majesty. And I repent me and lament me therefore, and am hartily sorry from the bottom of my heart, trusting verily in thy promises, good Lord, to be one of the partakers of thy blessed presence in heaven, and to have a saved soul; most humbly beseeching thee, good Lord, for pity and mercy sake, to redress my tedious, long, and wonderful sutes, pains, sorrows, and troubles, and that they may be a part of penance for my sins, so that with my said pains, wrongs, and grievous troubles being patiently taken for thy name sake may be to the salvation of my soul, bought with thy precious blood. Amen. And all the whole world, both poor and rich, that ever I have offended, I ask forgiveness, and also forgive all creatures that ever offended me.” 
The Harvest of Yesterday is a wonderfully detailed picture, remarkably accurate, of Anne Powys and her world. I enjoyed it, especially the historical detail and the firm Reformed perspective, and I look forward to reading more of Emily Sarah Holt’s books in the future.


Unknown said...

antique history books are really very famous now a days because everybody wants to know their past and history, so this is really helpful blog for us for that type of books. Really thankful to you.

Christina Baehr said...

Very interesting. So Anne was Lady Jane Grey's half-aunt? Jane's youngest sister, Mary Grey (who suffered from some form of dwarfism), also married to suit herself (secretly), but Elizabeth I put a stop to that as soon as she could. ;(

I'm always impressed by Holt's depth of research, especially coming from a time when research must have been much more difficult! I think you'll like Lady Sybil's Choice. It's about Guy de Lusignan's family.

Anonymous said...

ES Holt drew much from "Foxe's Book of Martyrs", but as you say, she undertook meticulous research. I have the pleasure of access to some of her notes and letters, belonging to her family. She is related to other families in the Lancashire region.


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